Expectations vs. reality: How the Flames’ forward depth failed them

At the start of the season, the Flames looked like they could have had a formidable top nine. The caveat: it relied on several players needing to meet, and in some cases exceed, career expectations, with little room for error.

There were a lot of errors.

Jaromir Jagr’s signing was supposed to be a boon for the Flames. Yes, he was old; he was also coming off of a 46-point season in which he put up outstanding numbers with younger players. At the time, I forecasted a top nine that looked as such:

Johnny Gaudreau Sean Monahan Micheal Ferland
Matthew Tkachuk Mikael Backlund Michael Frolik
Kris Versteeg Sam Bennett Jaromir Jagr

So, what happened? Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk all had career years. That’s the major upside to this mess: the Flames’ best (and still rather young) players were their best players.

Mikael Backlund faltered some – he didn’t have another 20-goal year, but his points totals were roughly in line with what he scored the previous two seasons – and the 3M line wasn’t as impressive as it had been the season before. Michael Frolik got hit with a below career average shooting percentage, and a broken jaw probably didn’t help matters, either; that said, there’s reasonable expectation he could bounce back next season, as little as it means to this past season’s failures at forward.

Then, there’s everyone else. Micheal Ferland was outstanding until he wasn’t; he’s still a great player, but you want more out of a top line forward (see: Gaudreau, Monahan). Sam Bennett still has yet to take that next step forward, which impacted the third line pretty harshly: what could have been formidable based on Bennett’s original career projections has still yet to materialize.

Kris Versteeg, who scored 37 points the previous year and was something of a powerplay specialist, got hurt. Jagr was hurt. And so, the Flames instead ended up with:

Johnny Gaudreau Sean Monahan Micheal Ferland
Matthew Tkachuk Mikael Backlund Michael Frolik
Sam Bennett Mark Jankowski Garnet Hathaway

Again: three guys lived up to their potential. Backlund didn’t fall too far from it, while Ferland was adequate, but not exceptional. If Frolik’s luck had swung the other way, that’s still a half decent top six group.

But the third line could never recover from its expected potential. Mark Jankowski had a solid rookie season, but not one good enough for a team already reeling with failed possibilities at forward. And Garnet Hathaway may be able to score in the AHL, but in the NHL, he simply does not belong on a third line. Replace him with Troy Brouwer, maybe, but Brouwer’s days of hovering around 40-point seasons are clearly over. The Flames’ depth was instantly decimated by a vastly underperforming and inadequate third line.

What happened was the Flames loaded up their defensive group, then crossed their fingers and prayed for the best at forward, their lone move being to sign a then-45-year-old man just before the season started for insurance. “Hoping everything turns out okay” and nothing more resulted in half of a top nine that did not turn out okay, and with it, one of the lowest scoring teams across the NHL.

The Flames led in a lot of offensive metrics, according to Natural Stat Trick: corsi for, shots for, scoring chances for, high danger corsi events for. Their worst was shots for, at sixth best in the league. But they didn’t have the shooting percentage to match: partly due to, yes, poor luck, but also partly due to a lower quality cast of supporting characters. And so, no goals.

The Flames had an answer when Bennett didn’t meet expectations: Jankowski. They had no answer when Versteeg went down. They had no answer when Jagr went down. Nobody in the fourth line group, from Brouwer to Curtis Lazar, was adequate enough to take another step forward and plug the holes forming.

The last impact forward the Flames added probably would be Tkachuk, in the 2016 NHL draft.

If they hope things turn around for the 2018-19 season, they’ve got to bring in someone else. Maybe even two somebody elses, to prepare for all that could go wrong. Because they didn’t do that this past season, and look what happened. And while you hope this past year was an anomaly, and their shooting percentage will improve to at least average levels again next year, that isn’t something one can count on, and if the 2017-18 season taught us anything, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

    • BlueMoonNigel

      While I see Backlund as having more value than you do, I concur fully that the extension was a baddie–too long and too much dough for a third-line centre on any respectable playoff team.

      Tre doled out this lemon of a contract no doubt thinking that he (Tre) would be long removed from these parts before the contract dies, so his radioactive waste becomes the worry and misery of the next GM just as Sutter’s Stajan deal has handcuffed Tre.

    • withachance

      Seriously don’t know what you want from this guy. He’s shown he’s worthy to be in a top 10 Selke winner, consistently elevates lesser players (see Ferland, Bennett, Colbourne, Bouma), and probably the best 3C in the league (and a decent 2C). No, he’s not going to get you 60 points, and he’s not going to contain McDavid and Crosby on a nightly basis but he does it about as well as anyone in the league that’s not a legit superstar. Everytime you slam on this guy it’s like you want him to be like Bergeron or Kopitar… that’s not him, and no one should think he can get to that height, but he’s a hell of a lot better than anyone else we have (including Janko and Dube)

      He’s a valuable player on the team and would leave a pretty big hole if the Flames trade him. So yeah, the new contract wasnt amazing but definitely not overvalued for what he is: a responsible, Selke ballot 2/3C that will continue to help in the development of the prospect for the next 5 years.

      • Raffydog

        I guarantee you will never hear Backlunds name and Selke brought up in the same sentence for the rest of his career. The guy rode a rookie to his best season ever, cashed in then promptly checked out. Can’t wait for that clown to be somebody else’s problem.

        • withachance

          I’ll take you up on that bet honestly. Which Selke winner and serious candidate doesn’t have good linemates? The moment that he had 2 good, smart wingers he was immediately in the Selke conversation. So yeah, I think as long as his linemates are better than Colborne and Bouma he’ll be up there in Selke contenders.

      • T&A4Flames

        And to boot, he’s (still) not getting the $10 mil or $6.9ish mil that Kopitar or Bergeron are getting. It’s a decent contract for a valuable player.

      • Fat Tony

        I just want to get this out here since we are talking about Backlund. The guy is a good player on both ends of the ice but the fact remains that he is better suited as a third line center and not a second. We are always talking about filling the wing positions but if we create more depth at center and build around them, then the wing positions wouldn’t be as much as an issue. Backlund is a defensive center and has proven to be a good mentor and team mate for young players so his value would be better utilized on the third line. Given that it only took a roster Dman to pry a player like Adam Henrique from NJ, its not crazy to think that we could have made that deal or one similar to it. our forward group could look like:
        Gaudreau Monahan Ferland
        Tkachuk Henrique Foo
        Bennett Backlund Frolik
        Dube Jankowski Hathaway

    • Professor M

      The Flames chemistry crash that was once the envy of the league is the real culprit. The team caught fire when dollars paid and ice time reflected earned value to the team -resulting in total team buy in – synergy, mojo rising! Now there are 2 high priced players who can’t or won’t compete in all situations, yet get continued support from management who erred in the signings – bingo – no more mojo. The room is lost. Players are not stupid. Justice rules the hockey room mentality. If the rewards system is not just players will not step into the fire where excellence is found.

    • What are you smoking?

      That’s because only in Flamers land are third line shut down players also the secondary scoring and even primary sometimes! It had nothing to do with bad puck luck, There is a reason why third and fourth liners get the lower end of the playing time and salaries, they don’t score! Flames have at least 12 of these types!

    • FlamesFan27

      I think the Backlund contract is a little long, but he’s a good player. He’s not the problem right now. The problem is the 3rd (should be 2nd) scoring line. There is NO ONE on this team that can score outside of the first line.

      • What are you smoking?

        Backlund and Frolik are not top six players ANYWHERE else but here. So is it really any surprise the team lacked secondary scoring? SB, MJ have yet to prove that they are anything outside a third line, so, there seems to be an over abundance of players who are all fighting for the two bottom six line spots, throw in Ferland with them. Outside of JG, SM and KT2.0, what does this team got for punch?

  • FL?MES

    Do we need a shut down line next season or could we adopt the Vegas model where we role out 4 functional lines. As the saying goes, the best defence is a good offence.

  • TurkeyLips

    Our forwards performed as admirably as could be expected. It truly was depth that failed us.

    Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk and Ferland all had career years. Jankowski impressed. Bennett was Bennett. The forward vets all produced as expected. The reason nobody stepped up when Versteeg or Frolik went down was because there is nobody worth mentioning beyond our first two lines. An issue in depth – not underperformance (except for you Bennett, please train hard this summer, thanks).

    It’s going to be a long offseason, these playoffs have provided lukewarm excitement at best. Nonetheless it will be interesting to see how Treliving goes about recalibrating our defensive corps, and how that may correspond with the shoring up of critically needed forward depth. Finding out who the new bench boss will be should also provide some semblance of anticipation. Hey, at least this long and crappy winter is just about over.

      • PrairieStew

        Remember, Foo stuggled mightily to begin the season in the AHL, while Hathaway was putting up numbers that screamed for him to be called up. He was called up – and as this article stated, proved he can’t score at this level. In October Foo couldn’t even score at the AHL level. I agree – Hathaway is not good enough for the third line; but for most of this past season, he was a better option than Foo

        • The Doctor

          I agree Foo wasn’t ready at the beginning of the season and needed time in Stockton. Hathaway’s miracle scoring numbers in Stockton were clearly the Jankowski Effect, in restrospect. Plus certain guys can score at the AHL level but just can’t do so in the NHL and Hathaway is one of those guys. Foo has been on a nice steady upward trajectory. I’m pretty confident about him heading into next season as long as he continues working at it. He’s a gamer.

    • What are you smoking?

      Yeah, SB is totally second line caliber material. He’s totally shown that his last three years so far. Give it up. He was over appraised. He’s a career third liner. First line if you are Flames.

  • WillyWonka

    “The Flames led in a lot of offensive metrics, according to Natural Stat Trick: corsi for, shots for, scoring chances for, high danger corsi events for.”

    really? cant we just put CORSI into the same catagory as the +/- stat once and for all? you guys keep quoting CORSI stats like they mean something… and this overreliance on CORSI will see us get another useless coach like Peters, because he is such a “possession” guy, in spite of the fact that he was a coach with a consistently bad win/loss ratio for 4 years straight in spite of his beautiful CORSI. I guess he didnt have any “luck”, the key component to CORSI success

    • BendingCorners

      Carolina didn’t have much scoring talent, and had truly awful goaltending.
      You’re right, Corsi doesn’t overcome a lack of shooting skill and a lack of stopping skill. It’s just another number that provides one indication of how well a team plays. All other things being equal, it indicates which team is more likely to win, but all other things are never equal so the actual variance between Corsi and wins can be large. Used as just one more counting statistic, it’s fine. Used as the final arbiter of a team’s calibre it fails.

      • The Doctor

        Corsi doesn’t tell you anything about how or whether you finish plays in the offensive zone. Hathaway is exhibit A. Decent responsible 2 way player but can’t finish to save his life. Lazar, similar issues. We need more finishers, which is why I like Foo.

        • BendingCorners

          If Foo turns out to be good enough to actually provide decent secondary scoring then we can all be happy. It’s too early though to count on it, and having an extra option behind him as well as a star ahead of him would still be a good thing.

  • ThisBigMouthIsRight

    Hopefully a system change and proper line matching/player usage will rejuvenate some of these guys and give them a clean slate or new outlook on scoring goals and not just the pass, pass, pass & perimeter shots that we are a custom to seeing.

    • ThisBigMouthIsRight

      Lets also hope that a new system Includes an Active D up on the Rush~! How many offensive opportunities died from lack of d-support in the O-Zone and defensive blunders because of lack of Forward-support coming back? Address those Issues with the right management/coaching and I’m betting to see a team more engaged and effective in both zones!

  • Intercourse the Penguins

    I think most people on this site expect (and want) Bartkowski to move on elsewhere. I would like to see him in Stockton as a forward if at all possible as he is an asset too good to lose. Give him a second chance if he will accept it: even at a big league salary. When the cupboard is near empty and you can’t afford to dine out that can of succotash may someday hit the spot.

  • BendingCorners

    It takes time to build a championship team, not just because there aren’t usually a whole bunch of elite players at every position just waiting to be signed, but also because some selections turn out poorly.
    The Flames have made good progress in building the roster but the lack of quality RHS forwards is still a glaring hole. If they somehow had two very good RHS in the top six then using Frolik and Foo in the bottom six and carrying one more RHS for a spare would make for a much more balanced and effective forward group. It would also mean that Stockton had two more RHS forwards available (Lazar and Brouwer would be my choices for relegation).
    There aren’t a lot (or any) 25-year-old top six RHS available so it will cost something significant to get even one, never mind two. That means filling the right side properly will probably take more than one year.
    Our best asset for a trade is Brodie, so if Treliving manages to make a trade that’s who I think will be moved.

  • PrairieStew

    The third line did not do enough, to say nothing of the 4th line. Prospects Shinkaruk, Poirier and Klimchuk – as first round picks of 2013 should have been contributing and they were not. To a lesser extent, second rounder of 2014 Hunter Smith also has failed to develop. One can hope for more internal development, Bennett and Jankowski could still improve. Ferland – a 2010 pick – is probably done developing – he’s not in line for a big improvement. Foo might be able to contribute – but remember he is the same age as those 2014 picks that we are all ready to walk away from – his upside might not be that high.

  • Greg

    To me the problem isn’t depth so much as top-end-depth. If you had a legit top line RWer in that mix, and pushed Ferland down to the third line, I’d be pretty happy with that top 9.

    They either need a bonafide top line RWer, or an OK top line RWer plus a couple upgrades in the bottom 6, before next season starts. I actually think this is one of the best UFA forward crops in a while so I’m hopeful they can do that.

      • Greg

        Tavares, Statsny, Perron, Neal, JvR, Kane, Nash 1, Nash 2, Grabner, Vanek, Thornton… there’s some land mines there for sure but it’s as good a crop as I remember as far UFAs have gone since the dawn of long term contracts. There’s a few guys that would instantly fix the top 6 and bump Ferland down to the third to fix it. If you can’t sign the top ones, any two of them would instantly fix the bottom 6 instead.

        And you don’t have to trade away anymore assets which we can’t really afford.

      • Greg

        We don’t have much left to trade. Really can’t part with more high picks, Brodie is the only “expendable” that would land you anything of top-line quality (and I would argue he’s not expendable unless Valimaki wins a top 4 spot in camp).

        Basically we have cap space to try to solve the problem, we don’t have trade assets. So I think you have to go that route.

          • Crazy Flames

            I can’t see it being Hamilton. If it is the return is going to be massive. Multiple 1st rounders and a roster player. Otherwise why trade a young RHS scoring Dman.

            Tavares, Flames 1st, Islanders 1st for Hamilton on condition Tavares signs with the Flames.
            Stone, Pageau, Pitt’s 1st 2018, Ottawa’s 1st 2019 for Hamilton, Brouwer
            Gallager, Mtl’s 1st 2018, Mtl’s 1st 2019 for Hamilton (They might need to send someone like Petry back for cap reasons)
            McDavid, Edm’s 1st 2018, Edm’s 1st 2019 for Hamilton (Just because Chia is that smart)

  • Hockeyfan

    useless = stajan, brouwer, jagr
    semi useless = backlund, frolik, hathaway
    kinda useful but at least tried = Ferland(big if going forward), Janko, Lazar, Sam, Versteeg
    woulda been worse w/out = JG, Sean, Byng
    are the Flames the kind of team that rewards sweet swededs for being oh so sweet? You bet they are. Look at Backs new deal, given for getting worse. That instills a winning culture, NO? Flames coulds got a lot for backs and fro at deadline, throw in TJ and stone and they would be laughing going into the draft if not still playing.

  • Korcan

    Based on Tre’s assessment that the team lacks in emotional engagement, Ferland and Brouwer should both be worried (though I’m not sure Brouwer is even moveable at this point). On defense Stone and Brodie are the biggest culprits. Replace those four with equally skilled players who are known for their emotional engagement and the team culture will be completely different next year. Sounds easy in theory, but will no doubt be a big challenge for Tre this summer.

  • Atomic Clown

    Jesus the amount of old minded fans on this site is unbelievable. Every opinion that disagrees with theirs is “moronic” and “sheeplike”. Learn to discourse like a cultured person, and stop being a twat. Learn from WW. He staunchly voices his unpopular opinion on Backlund, but doesn’t resort to being a prick

  • freethe flames

    BT and his pro scouting staff misread our forward group and spent the assets they had on the wrong needs. Some of these guys may still turn out to good forwards but needed more time. Janko was ready but all of the rest needed more time. This year he needs to prioritize the needs; a top 6 forward preferably a RHS, a gritty hard nose 2 way forward preferably a RH center. Possibly an NHL back up goalie and another defender if you move one our current D to fill the RH top 6 forward.

    • ThisBigMouthIsRight

      I think he misread the importance of the Corsi turning into reality… Then again, So did almost Everyone Hockey “expert” going into this season… GG’s & Cameron’s coaching were just a complete and total Disaster for anything after Corsi… Lots of work to do to get the team back to where they need to be… it isn’t going to be easy or without its own warts and F* ups~! It All Starts with Whomever will be the new Coaching Staff and will trickle down from there.

  • everton fc

    We say we are “soft” (this is a soft team, in many ways)… But many want to dump/move Ferland, Hamonic, Bennett… Hathaway’s a “bum”…

    GG was the bigger issue. We need a coach who can get the best out of his players, w/o alienating them.

  • freethe flames

    I have been doing my evaluation of the forwards for about a week now; so I might as well do a coupe of more. So I will discuss the 2 vets that I have yet to evaluate. Stajan and Frolik. I give both of them a failing grade. Lets start with Stajan; the highlight is that he got his 1000th game. Their were nights when I thought he was okay especially when given a chance to play with young guys with speed but really the game has passed him by. Some are suggesting that we should resign him to be our 13th forward but that would just signal to me surrender before the season begins.

  • freethe flames

    Frolik gets a failing grade as well, his counting numbers were down significantly and was not as good defensively as he has been in the past. Despite this I still think he did some good things at times during the year. Again if properly slotted next year I could see a return to form but if he was traded for the right asset it would not be the end of the world.

  • What are you smoking?

    Yeah our shutdown line is also our 2nd offensive line. Wonder where it went wrong? JG+SM and whoever not ever considered as a first liner is it in terms of offensive punch. Frolik, MB, SB, TB, these are names that should never be synonymous with top six. At least they wouldn’t be on pretty much 25 other teams. BT needs not just a top sick RW but TWO plus a bonifide 2nd line center. How anyone thinks otherwise have their heads up their a$$.

  • ThisBigMouthIsRight

    Just putting it out there…. I don’t think Holtby will be available after these past few games, and after the first couple of this series I’m not sold on Grubauer being ready for Prime Time… So now what?

      • ThisBigMouthIsRight

        Don’t forget Coiler fans Live in the past… its all they got.. Although they sure like to blank out the past Decade or so… you know, it helps them sleep at night.

          • ThisBigMouthIsRight

            Oooooom~99.. Oooooom~99.. Oooooom~99.. I can smell the incense now, LOL Hmmmm, Isn’t Wayne IS still there with half the 80’s dance~party Oil running the show… I’m sure their trying to figure a way to infuse McJesus’s blood into Wayne and get him on the ice again or at least in a assistant roll somewhere?

          • Oil Spilly

            Actually we have this guy named Connor now who is just as good as Gretzky 🙂

            Tell me what do flames fans have to be proud of????? Present or past?? Lol tough question right!!!!!

          • BiggDogg

            Ah yes McHandout, he is pretty great! Too bad your team is doomed to salary cap hell thanks to big bad ol’ Lucic and the criminally overpaid Leon, the barely professional.

          • Oil Spilly

            Criminally overpaid Draiaistl? Drai had 51 pts in 72 games rookie yr, 77 pts in 82 games last yr and 70 pts in 75 games this year:) and he’s only getting better 🙂 that’s a sweet deal now and even more so as the cap rises. 8.5 compared to a lot of players. Most noteabley Johnathon Toews who is paid 10 million per yr.
            toews numbers the last 3 years 58 pts, 58 pts, 52 pts. Lol
            Criminal you say hey

          • Oil Spilly

            Come to think of it Lucic only has 18 less points the last 3 years compared to Toews at 10 million per yr 🙂
            Plus Luc beats the crap out of everyone!!!